Friday, February 29, 2008

Bridge to the Future

Dedicated to Malka bat Sima – may she have a speedy and complete convalescence.

Two stories this week – one for kids and one for adults.

Story for kids -

A poor man named Shlomi lived in Bialystok is praying for help in supporting his family. “Please God,” he pleads, “Help me support my family! I’m willing to go anywhere, try anything, just guide me!”

That night he has a dream. In his dream he’s digging under a certain bridge in Warsaw and finds a box of gold coins.

“This is my sign!” he decides, and sets out, with his shovel, on the long journey to Warsaw.

When he arrives in Warwaw he has two problems. “First of all,” he realizes, “I have no idea which bridge was in my dream. Second of all, even if I find the bridge, how can I just start digging? It will surely raise suspicion. Oh well, I’ll cross that bridge when I find it.”

So he starts searching bridges. It takes him several days but he finally finds the bridge of his dream. “OK, now what?” Shlomi realizes that his only hope is to dig at night, when no one is around. So he impatiently waits until nightfall. In those days, people didn’t stay out much after dark, so by about 10:00 the streets were deserted. Shlomi started to dig.

And dig.

And dig.

And dig.

“Still no box of gold. Not even a nickel! What am I doing here? Am I crazy? No, I’m not crazy, just a fool.”

Suddenly there was someone standing over him – a night watchman!

“What are you doing? Why are you digging here? I’ve been watching you for the past hour, you have been digging and digging! What in the world are you looking for?”

Shlomi didn’t know what to do. Should I tell the truth? But he won’t believe me. But I cannot lie... So he decided to tell the truth.

“You’re not going to believe me, but I will tell you the truth. I had a dream that there was a box of gold coins under this bridge.”

The watchman laughed and laughed, “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! You silly man, you think your dreams mean something? If I believed my dreams I’d be in Bialystok right now looking for gold under the floorboards of some Yid named Shlomi. Now go home and stop being such a dreamer.”

Shlomi couldn’t believe his ears. He rushed home as fast as he could and sure enough, under the floorboards under his bed, he found a box of gold coins.

Story for adults -

Q: What’s the best way to get rid of an old junk car without having to pay towing fees or deal with the state red tape?

A: Donate it to a small and under-funded non-profit organization.

We joined a national car donation program a few years ago, and every once in a while someone designates their jalopy to JSL and we get a letter telling us that our net proceeds after the towing and commission were $0.00.

So in December, for the first time, someone donated a car that was actually worth something. And it was local, not through this national service, which means no service fees.

In theory.

It was a 1998 Buick LeSabre, and looked pretty good! (see the blog version of Table Talk for photos). The Blue Book value was about $3,500.

Not bad, right?

You’re waiting to hear the catch.

The first catch was that the donor is an immigrant whose English is challenged, and he erroneously signed the wrong part of the title, and lives in another state. So getting a new title issued and signed by him was a challenge.

The second catch is that the car needed some repairs. In retrospect, we should have tried to sell it at a big discount “as is”, but who knew?

In any event, I had no idea how log it would take to find a buyer, so I put a blurb on craigslist and soon enough I had a guy, Steve, who said he’s been looking for this model and year Buick for a long time. Problem was that his top dollar was $2,000, far below the KBB value. And no, he wasn’t interested in a car that needed work.

So we took it to a mechanic who did not charge an arm and a leg, about $600. While this is going on, and the state inspection, we’re still waiting for the new title and Steve is calling about every other day.

Finally, in early February, we thought we were good to go and phoned up Steve.

Steve comes for a test drive. He’s happy.

Then he takes it to his mechanic. His mechanic found a couple problems. Steve’s unhappy.

Our mechanic says, those are minor problems, but we figure we’ve got to get rid of this car, so let’s get them fixed. Another $230.

At this point, after going to all this trouble, Steve stops answering our calls. Can’t get ahold of him.

Back to craigslist, and we found another buyer, a teenager named Nathan who wanted a Buick for his first car.

Nathan comes with his parents, test drives. Nathan’s happy.

There is one problem. While trying to adjust the side mirror, which is sticking, the mirror breaks.

We decide that the mirror was old and we should fix it. Nathan agrees that if we fix it, he’ll buy the car, and we arrange to meet on Sunday afternoon to close the deal (this is last Sunday).

This will be my first personal involvement with this car. Until now, it was handled by my staff. But I’m the only one who works on Sunday.

So I show up Sunday afternoon, meet Nathan, Tall friendly hobbledehoy type of kid. I hand him the keys and the title, and just before he hands me the check, his father discovers that the car won’t start. Battery is completely dead. This is a new battery.

It turns out that the mechanic erred when installing the new mirror and caused a drain on the battery. But in the meantime, Nathan went elsewhere and found a different car.

And then, suddenly yesterday one of my staff member’s next-door-neighbor sees the ad, phones, and before the day is out we have a check in hand for our asking price.

Did you ever find that the resolution to a problem is often right under your nose?

Shabbat Shalom.

Travel/speaking schedule:

March 4-6 – San Francisco and Los Angeles
April 3 - St. Louis
April 7 - Baltimore

For details, send an email!

Friday, February 22, 2008

In Action

In memory of Albert Bitton (Amichai ben Eliyahu), an army medic killed in Baghdad Tuesday by an IED. He graduated from the Ida Crown Jewish Academy (West Rogers Park, Chicago) in 2005 and was looking forward to attending medical school when he completed his duty. Heartfelt condolences to his wife, parents and sisters, and the Jewish community of Chicago. (Incidentally, he is the second graduate from Ida Crown to be killed in Iraq.) Please read more about this exceptional young man here and here is one blogger’s personal memory of Albert.

What’s going on in Iraq?

Have you ever noticed that, by and large, the news media don’t tell us much about Iraqi casualties? Occasionally you hear a personal spotlight about an individual soldier or two, but most of the time the casualties are merely numbers. Here is one site that tries to personalize the fallen.

In contrast, the Israeli news during any kind of attack immediately puts a name and face on each casualty.

Question for your table: What difference does it make for a society whether or not we account for people as numbers or as names?

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If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall my friend Chaplain Captain Andy Shulman, who was the only Jewish chaplain in Iraq (and now has one or two colleagues there).

Andy sends updates and photos every day. Jewish soldiers are coming out of the proverbial woodworks – when they find out that he has a Shabbat program, for example, they want to get involved. The photo on the left is a Havdala ceremony in one of Sadaam's palaces. Knowing that Iraq was the center of Jewish life for centuries (that's where the Talmud was created), makes this scene particularly interesting.

He also has seen his share of hardship. Recently, he was contacted by a Jewish Iraqi woman who is living with her children in fear for her life. Her husband was kidnapped in December of 2006 and she hasn’t heard from him since. All she received was a single phone call saying that “they will slaughter him, and they cursed the Jews.”

No idea if he is dead or alive. She never came forward until now because of fear for her children. But she has asked for the worldwide community to pray for her husband.

If you would like to do so, or to give a nickel of tzedakka in his merit, please have in mind Yaakov Na’eem Eliyahu Sharabani ben Sadiya Avraham.

If you would like to send a care package of kosher food, books or anything else to the Jewish soldiers in Iraq, here is the address:

4/3 HHC CAB 43408
APO, AE 09322-3408

Our media culture seems to measure greatness by how well someone does – who can run the fastest, make the most money, do the hardest math problems.

What if we measured greatness by how well a person deals with their hurdles and errors? According to that measure, who would be great in your book?

Shabbat Shalom

Travel/speaking schedule:

March 4-6 - California
April 3 - St. Louis
April 7 - Baltimore

For details, send an email.

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Tale of Two Survivors

Last week’s story about Rabbi Dovid Luria and the question about greatness brought a flood of replies.

This week I don’t have to write the story, it was in all the newspapers.

Here are a couple links.

Tom and Annette Lantos decided 25 years ago to serve the country in a very public way, and he got the send-off he deserved.

Nearby, in Baltimore, another survivor passed away this week, Mrs. Necha Bayarsky.

Who was she?

She was predeceased by her husband, Rabbi Avraham Bayarsky, by a few months.

They both survived the war from Eastern Europe, met in Paris and came to the States in 1947, raised children and grandchildren.

Since their eulogy was not in thousands of newspapers, I would like to give you a tiny glimpse into their remarkable life. If you looked at them together, you would have seen a simple, ordinary Jewish couple, married for over 50 years, raising children and grandchildren in Baltimore.

I personally knew the family and occasionally sat in on R. Bayarsky’s lively, mostly-Yiddish class on Saturday morning. Once or twice I walked with him up Glen Avenue. He was a treasure of wisdom and wit, even as he reached (his children guesstimate) 96. He noticed when I was gone and asked me where I was and how the teaching was going.

In turn, I would ask him to tell me something from his youth. Did the great sage, the Chafetz Chaim, really look like the pictures of him? Yes (R. Bayarsky studied in his yeshiva for the last two years of the Chafetz Chaim’s life, and heard sermons from him every week).

What was life like in Radin? Simple – you sat and learned Torah. Then you got something to eat. Then you went back and learned some more.

What happened to your Judaism in Russia (he was a refugee in Siberia)? They made us work on Shabbos, so we tried to minimize it. Once, I but a tourniquet on my leg to make it swell and the doctor gave me permission not to work.

He was reputed to have been one of the top students in the Radin yeshiva and one of the things that made him a great teacher until his death was his ability to recall details of what he learned, heard and experienced from the Old World, including phenomenal Torah insights. And he never lost his sense of humor.

Its seems like everywhere I go, there is at least one person who makes a big deal about the possibility that I might know a certain comedian. I want to tell them, “If you only knew who I knew!”

Shabbat Shalom.

Travel/speaking schedule:
February 18-20 – Chicago and Deerfield
March 4-6 - California
April 3 - St. Louis

For details, send an email!

Friday, February 08, 2008


A true story: Rabbi Dovid Luria (17th Century) was tried in Russia, falsely accused of treason. When the judges deliberated, they did so in French because no one else in the courtroom understood.

Rabbi Luria, upon hearing the French, put his fingers in his ears.

The judges demanded an explanation for his strange behavior.

“Your honors were speaking French in order to deliberate in private. Since I understand French, I felt that to listen in without your permission would be tantamount to theft.”

When they heard it, they freed him immediately. They agreed it would be impossible for someone with that level of commitment to truth to be guilty of treason.

Question for your table: What’s your definition of a great person?

Here are some possible qualities:


What would you add to or subtract from the list?

We have an ancient tradition that none of us can achieve our full spiritual potential without spending significant time with a role model such as Rabbi Luria. Who is or was your “greatness guru”?

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - A few honesty videos for your enjoyment...

Travel/speaking schedule:

February 18-20 – Chicago and Deerfield
March 4-6 - California
April 3 - St. Louis

For details, please send an email.

Friday, February 01, 2008


Two weeks ago, I posed a question about a young man whose parents were unhappy with his choices – how would you have replied to the young man’s dilemma?

In response to popular demand, I will share my actual answer, but first a story and a plea.

The story is about our 3-year old Yoseph. The other night when I was putting him to bed, after we’d finished the epic thriller, There’s a Wocket in My Pocket, he confessed, “I like it when you hurt me when I’m bad.”

I thought I'd misunderstood him, because I’ve never used corporal anything on the kids. Maybe he was thinking about the other day when he was being “chuzpadik” and I took him (yelling) to his room an hour before his bedtime and said, “You’re being chuzpadik so the day is over for you, please stay in bed, good night.”

Or maybe I heard him wrong. “What did you say?”

“I like it when you hurt me when I’m bad. But now I’m good, so I’m going to hug you and kiss you.”

Question for your table: What did Yoseph mean?

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Reader survey – I’m interested to know your interest in and level of knowledge about Israel.

1. Have you had a chance to tour Northern Israel and Jerusalem?

2. Do you have family or friends who live in Israel?

3. Do you desire to travel to Israel in the next 5 years?

A few fast Israel facts:

In Israel, you can visit the lowest elevation on Earth.
In Israel, you can experience 5 climactic zones in a single day’s drive.
Israel has a parliamentary democracy, which to an American (me) is less user-friendly than a representative democracy.
In Israel, Moslem women can vote, drive cars, etc.
Yahoo is establishing – in the footsteps of Google, Microsoft, Intel and scores of additional global giants - an R&D center in Haifa. The latest Intel chips and Windows OS were developed there.

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OK, so let’s end with the two young men under discussion.

Here’s what I told the young man:

I told it to him straight and simple - that the mitzvah of honoring parents governs how we speak to our parents (including not contradicting them) and helping them (including calling and visiting them), but does not mean that we need to accept their opinion when it comes to our own choices.

Regarding Yoseph: Children want to know the first part, which is why Yoseph said what he said. Children want to learn loving discipline and respect. They need it. But they need to learn how to choose, too. That means that even when they are young we should perhaps stay out of their choices that are not a moral or safety issue.

Shabbat Shalom.

Travel/speaking schedule:
January 28 – Baltimore - “Judaism and Islam”
February 6-7 – Los Angeles
February 18-20 – Chicago and Deerfield
March 18-19 – Miami area

For details, send an email!